‘Jewface’ debate over viewing non-Jews as Jews betrays Ashkenazi bias

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(JTA) – Actress and comedian Sarah Silverman, in her comments on September 30 podcast, railed against the practice of portraying non-Jews as Jewish characters on TV and in movies. She called the castings “Jewface,” a play on the historically racist practice of wearing “blackface.”

Silverman pointed to a slew of Jewish women portrayed by non-Jewish actresses, including Rachel Brosnahan in ‘The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel’, Felicity Jones as the late Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg in ‘On the Basis of Sex’ and Kathryn Hahn’s next film. play as Joan Rivers in “The Comeback Girl”.

“There’s this long tradition of non-Jews playing Jews, and not just people who happen to be Jewish, but people whose Jewishness is their whole being,” Silverman said. “You could say, for example, that a non-Jew playing Joan Rivers properly would do what is actually called ‘Jewface’.”

Silverman goes on to say that “if the Jewish female character is brave or deserves love, she’s never played by a Jew. Never!”

Now, I’m not here to comment on whether Hollywood’s portrayal of Jewish women as controlling, nagging, or whiny is a problem (it is), nor to question the dubious wisdom of Silverman speaking out against “Jewface anti-Semitic and misogynist tropes when she herself casually engaged in racist portrayals of other ethnic groups, including herself donning “blackface,” without holding herself accountable.

Silverman’s own flaws aside, she’s not the originator of the problematic term “Jewface” nor the first Jewish woman to raise the issue. This is a valid discussion and an issue to be discussed, which is about representation, which can tell its own stories and the same “identity politics” that Silverman, ironically, finds “f–king boring”.

However, what I find interesting is the centering of Ashkenographic normativity in the term itself, and the curious fact that the specter of “Jewface” has – without fail – only raised its head when white actors portray white Jews, and largely ignores when the characters or actors are not white.

In a recent Twitter thread, I highlighted various Jews of color who have been portrayed onscreen. Grey’s Anatomy’s Dr. Christina Yang is Jewish. The actress who plays her, Sandra Oh, is not. Ato Essandoh Isn’t Jewish, But He Both Played Dr. Isidore Latham in ‘Chicago Med’ and Kwesi Weisberg-Annan on “Away”. Luke Youngblood is not Jewish, but Sid from “Galavant” is. Where is the dialogue and outrage about “Jewface” in those case?

(Interesting aside: while Tracee Ellis Ross’ character in “Black-ish” isn’t Jewish, the actress is, and the actors who play her siblings are also Black and Jewish: Daveed Diggs and Rashida Jones.).

Silverman isn’t alone in erasing Jewish women of color, or implying that when we say “Jewish,” we mean white and Ashkenazi.

Too often white Jewish women are portrayed as Jewish when playing comedic stereotypes or the Jewish mother (thanks Philip Roth), and too often not seen as desirable or bankable when it comes to playing heroines , protagonists or Jewish historical figures. Yet, on the other hand, actresses like Tracee Ellis Ross, Rashida Jones, Maya Rudolph, Tiffany Haddish, Laura London, Zoe Kravitz, Lisa Bonet, Sophie Okenedo, and Jurnee Smollett are considered attractive, strong, and adorable, but only in as black women, not as Jews.

Even fictional characters are subject to this bifurcation of identity. Jewish-but-not-black actress Jenny Slate has quit her role as the black-Jewish character Missy Foreman-Greenwald on “Big Mouth,” but her replacement, Ayo Edebiri, is black but not Jewish.

However, judging by the responses to my Twitter feed, instead of holistically engaging in the conversation about what aspects of Jewish identity and representation are important, mainstream American Jewry would rather not whatever corn recognize the Ashkenormative centering.

In my original thread, I apparently made the glaring error of offhandedly mentioning that a sizable contingent of Jewish “Star Trek: The Next Generation” fans (see this podcast and article) are considering the possibility that the Klingon officer Worf be a Jew. What do you think generated the most dialogue: the general issue of “Jewface” ignoring Jews of color, or whether or not Worf’s parents were coded as Ashkenazi or Russian?

In other cases, debates have arisen over whether the actors I listed were “true” Jews (although I made no reference to halakhic definitions of Jewishness) or whether the characters I ‘ve listed were “really” Jewish.

One commenter said Dr. Christina Yang “barely identified” as Jewish, despite the character’s famous line “I am Jewish. I know food and death” and his frequent habit of giving detailed explanations of Jewish ritual and tradition to his colleagues. (Meanwhile, white Jewish “Friends” characters Ross and Monica Geller – with three Chanukah mentions and a Bat Mitzvah rap between them – and Rachel Green – whose Magen David necklace makes an appearance – escape from the scene. somehow branded as “barely identifying” as Jews. Also curiously, Ross and Monica, whose mother is not Jewish, are considered “real” Jews by fans who might otherwise question the Jewish authenticity of some Jews of color. An interesting double standard.).

The problematic additional layer of this dialogue is the way in which, in too many Jewish communities, “blackface”, “brownface” and “yellowface” frequently raise their heads – whether in acclaimed and historic plays of Jewish representation such as “ The Jazz Singer”, or in costumes seen every year during the Purim holiday. The term and debate around “Jewface” (as opposed to simply referring to the practice as “bleaching”) not only comes across as performative, but also derails what is a larger and more important conversation about what it means “watch”, represent and simply to be Jewish.

None of us will be properly cast until we are all properly cast.

is the pseudonym of Shais Rishon, an African-American Orthodox rabbi, activist, speaker, and writer. He has written for Tablet, Kveller, The Forward, Jewcy and Hevria. His current project is “B’Esh Sh’chorah/In Black Fire: A Commentary and Anthology on the Torah” due out in 2022.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of JTA or its parent company, 70 Faces Media.

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